BIFF 2020: Oct. 30

A Balance

The 25th Busan International Film Festival ended today and, as usual, the press office sent me a final report. Total attendance at offline screenings came to 20,135, or 92 percent of capacity, which is surprising given that there was only one screening per film and each screening was limited to 50 persons. I thought it would have reached 100 percent. Online “views” of related events (forums, awards, master classes) totaled 30,204. Community BIFF, an “audience participation” gambit held in the Nampo-dong area of Busan for the first time, was declared a success. It targeted young people and 37 of the 46 screenings were sold out. The idea seems to be to create some sort of year-long connection between BIFF administration and young people in Busan, though, by now, I would have thought it hardly necessary. Usually, the festival is swarming with young people, though I haven’t been to Nampo-dong in a few years.

Of the various awards that interested me, one of the Kim Ji-seok Awards, named after the late founder-programmer, which are given to worthy Asian films from all the sections of the festival save New Currents, went to the Iranian film The Slaughterhouse, which I thought was good but not quite as accomplished as 200 Meters, if we’re going to talk about Middle Eastern movies with socially relevant themes. My own choice for Best Actor at the festival, Lim Seong-mi, actually won one of the acting awards for her startling turn in Fighter, which also won the NETPAC Award, given by foreign critics to the best Korean film. Good Person won two awards, both given out by industry associations, which makes sense since it had the strongest conventional narrative of any film I saw this year. 

The two awards for the New Currents section, which showcases new directors (first or second feature), went to Three from Kazakhstan, and the Japanese film A Balance, which I caught this morning. Certainly one of the most original Japanese movies I’ve seen in recent years, the film’s parallel storylines reflect on each other in often stunning ways. Essentially a story about media justice and how we weigh moral obligations against our personal requirements, A Balance can come across as overly cynical if you think too much about it, but Yujiro Harumoto’s direction is so steady and lead actor Kumi Takiuchi’s performance so compact that it holds your attention in a vice. Takiuchi plays Yuko, a serious documentary filmmaker tackling a two-year-old scandal involving two suicides and two families left in ruins, thanks to the resulting media attention. Conscientious to a fault, Yuko is painfully honest with all the “victims” of the scandal and against all odds gains their trust, all the while trying to convince a TV network to run the finished doc, a task that becomes frustrating for all the wrong reasons. Meanwhile, she has to deal with a personal matter that threatens to turn into its own media scandal and uses her peculiar talents to make it go away without getting anyone hurt. 

As someone who writes about the Japanese media, I would have preferred Harumoto had stuck exclusively with the TV doc story, which is canny and frank about the journalistic priorities exercised by mass communications outfits in Japan. At one point, Yuko’s partner, who is handling the negotiations with the network, asks her to tweak a significant portion of the doc, and when she says she can’t change the “truth,” he responds, “Whatever we put together is the truth.” In comparison, the parallel, more personal scandal, which ends up consuming most of the film’s dramatic oxygen, seems designed to make a point about Yuko’s methods and attitudes, and comes off as being contrived, at least in hindsight. While it’s happening it’s pretty intense.

Cicada (c) Ojayuro Pictures

I watched the much-anticipated debut feature by Lee Chung-ryoul, Cicada, because it’s about the traditional Korean performing art form Dasiraegi, and yesterday I had enjoyed The Disciple, also about an indigenous art form, so thoroughly that I thought it might make an apt complement. No such luck. Whereas The Disciple used its traditional arts theme to say something about integrity and purity of intention in a digital world, Cicada mostly used its traditional art as decoration, a colorful means of making its protagonist an unruly outsider. Duk-bae (Lee Yang-hee) is a master of Dasiraegi on Jindo, the island where it developed and the only place where it is practiced. Dasiraegi is a kind of burlesque performance that is staged before a funeral as a means of helping the spirit leave this world while another is entering it. It is bawdy, scatological, and indifferent to the feelings of the mourners, who nevertheless donate more money if they appreciate the show. Duk-bae is determined to become a Living National Treasure after his female mentor, who is not long for this world, leaves it, though he has a rival. Out of nowhere, his estranged daughter, Su-nam (Ju Bobi), shows up with her young daughter in tow, asking for money and seemingly determined to leave her child in the hands of her irresponsible father and then disappear into the ether. Though the motivations of all involved are crystal clear, the story development is a mess of contradictions, or perhaps the ways of Jindo Island are just too site-specific for outsiders to understand. For me, the movie’s attitude toward suicide is shockingly casual and its view of redemption so dark as to be opaque. The Dasiraegi scenes were quite convincingly staged, however. 

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